Writing in an Age of Universal Access

I always prefer reading collections of authors’ letters to published diaries. Like diaries, letters can offer a glimpse of intimacy, but because they are addressed to an interlocutor, they (often) avoid the self absorption and enclosure that can plague a diary or journal. The back and forth of a dialogue can draw each conversation partner out of themselves, spark new perspectives and threads of thought, but in a medium (writing) where authors thrive (as opposed to other sorts of conversations the reader might have access to – interviews etc.).

I read Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee’s collection, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 this summer (I read Knausgaard and Ekelund’s Home and Away last summer – so something about the summer months makes me want to dig into collections of letters, I guess?). I am less familiar with Auster than Coetzee, but Coetzee is about as open as he ever is in public in the collection. There seems to be a genuine fondness between the two, and the collection includes gems on friendship, travel, writing, and sports (along with some rather cranky old man complaining, and stretches on the mundane details and frustrations of ordinary life … at least ordinary life for famous authors in their 60s/70s). Parenthetically, sports seems to run through so many male friendships as a sort of minimal “friendship glue” – even among those who have other shared external interests, as Coetzee and Auster do (it’s there in the Knausgaard and Ekelund collection as well – but please note: “many” not “all”).

The mechanics of the exchange seem … complicated. Coetzee faxes his letters from Australia, with Auster responding via physical letters sent in the mail – although every once in a while Coetzee emails Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt, who (I think) prints off the emails for Auster’s perusal. All this is due to the fact that Auster does not have an email address or use a computer. Auster’s choices prompt a brief exchange between the two authors about the use of technology in fiction. Coetzee asks:

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Home and Away

Sometimes the right book arrives at the right time. Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund’s book of letters, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game was a book I gulped down in a series of summer evenings, stretched out on the living room floor, trying to survive central California in July.

The book is a series of letters, ostensibly about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, between Knausgaard, at home in a sleepy village in Sweden, and Ekelund, who is staying in Rio de Janeiro. I say “ostensibly” because while there is plenty of soccer analysis, the letters typically overflow their banks with a flood of other topics: class, memory, gender, parenting, culture, literature, meaning. We hear about trips to the local pool with the kids (Knausgaard) and pick-up soccer games on the beach (Ekelund). It’s about all of life, more or less, but grounded in a particular moment, with the spectacle of the games providing a through line for the reader to follow.

She smacked her forehead. Who’s going to read it?! she said. Is he in the stadium watching while you watch TV here? Yes, I said. But I write about other things too. Like what? she said. Whatever’s on my mind, I answered. Don’t write what you’re thinking about, Dad! she shouted. That’s what I do, I said. Today, for example, I’ve written about the drive to the theatre. How nice it was. Oh no! she said.

Knausgaard’s daughter on the project of Home and Away
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